“Show me the money.”
Money plays a surprising and prominent part of fantasy debut, The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Politics and rebellions have become pretty standard fare in fantasy, especially dystopian fiction, but the focus on the role of money sets this title apart, and the driving force is an accountant. With strong writing and unusual ideas, this story makes for a unique read.
The titular traitor, Baru Cormorant, is a fascinating character, and the story serves as a character study of a woman who betrays and sacrifices so much for a higher goal. She is smart, driven, yet intriguingly flawed. Her country was "peacefully" conquered by the Masquerade Empire when she was a child. Her people's lifestyle and culture were “sanitized” to fit the Masquerade's hygienic laws, one of her fathers disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and she was sent to school to be indoctrinated by Masquerade learning. She decides that she can save her country, but she needs power to do so and will do anything to get it. The Masquerade has a merit system to place promising students in positions beyond their circumstances, so Baru studies hard to earn a powerful position in the Masquerade capitol. She is disappointed when she is assigned to the unmanageable country of Aurdwynn as the Imperial Accountant with an assignment to prove herself by stopping Aurdwynn’s rebellion.
Dickinson plays with many intriguing ideas about the way people and government work, taking it beyond a let’s-take-down-the-status-quo rebellion plot. He focuses on how money runs everything, even the rebellion, complete with phrases and wordplay related to money, and it is money rather than men or hearts that will determine their fates. Baru serves the Masquerade Empire, sacrificing much to work from the inside out to, if not destroy the system, but change it from the inside, yet the story does not become an ego trip or one-woman show. The Masquerade governs with unusual and downright insidious methods. Baru uses those same techniques to manipulate Aurdwynn’s rebellion, yet it is hard to guess how far Baru will go and what she intends due to the two-faced and multi-layered nature of the story. What she says and even what she thinks is a balancing act between what seems and what is, where even Baru’s thoughts do not reveal her schemes until the end.